March into Middle-Earth: epic world-building

March into Middle-Earth (text banner over background of Tolkien's map)

Tolkien is at least partly responsible for my ongoing love affair with detailed world-building. I’m the irritating beta reader who says things like ‘I love the characters, but how does the economy work?’. Middle-Earth is saturated in detail, its history embedded into its landscape; the stories studded with songs and legends. But I still have a few questions…

I want to make one thing perfectly clear: questions are not criticisms. This is an intellectual exercise in curiosity, and it’s quite possible that there are answers out there on the Interwebs or in the 12-volume History of Middle-Earth. I just thought I’d share the weird and wonderful ways my mind works when I’m reading.

It all started with Rinn and Claire discussing hobbit economics, which triggered a bit of discussion on Dragons & Jetpacks. I’m relatively happy with the fact that we see farmers, market gardeners and small crafters, so it feels like a fairly sustainable pre-industrial rural economy.

In Concerning Hobbits, we find the Mayor, the Watch (the Shirriffs and Bounders) and the Messenger Service, the last of which was kept busy as lettered hobbits ‘wrote constantly to all their friends (and a selection of their relations) who lived further off than an afternoon’s walk’. Bilbo’s party overwhelms the post office at Bywater. It’s unclear how all this was paid for: postage, taxation or the public spirit of the Tooks, Brandybucks and other landed gentry. A little bit of me delights in the notion of hobbit civil servants and lawyers, but the reality was probably far simpler.

This soon moved onto a discussion of coinage, which appears to have been minimal – a few coins still in circulation from the North Kingdom and the Dwarves. All this conspired to get me thinking about the broader economy, and I was soon wondering about trade. Now, I’m very biased here – I studied prehistoric economics, and wrote my dissertation on Dark Age trade. In pre-industrial societies, trade (and gift exchange) have been brilliant ways to cement relationships and get rich.

Yet we never meet or hear about merchants in The Lord of the Rings that I can remember. This seems to be largely due to time it’s set in: there was certainly plenty of traffic throughout the Northwest prior to the return of the Numenoreans; between North Kingdom and South Kingdom before the North fell; between the Dwarven kingdoms; and between Erebor, Laketown and Mirkwood.

But the collapse of well-trafficked routes should have increased the value of trade. Surely someone should have been brave enough to hit the road? On the other hand, as Rinn reminded me, the distances are rather large and the Orcs are – in this period at least – numerous. Certainly once the Fellowship get on the Road it’s all too clear how empty much of Middle-Earth is; any trader would need to traverse enormous distances. And I suppose it’s entirely possible that merchants from coastal Gondor were trading by sea with the Grey Havens and the settlements of the Ered Luin – as this area is so far out of scope of the narrative, we’d simply never hear of it.

…so I think what I’m getting at is that there’s an awesome opportunity for fanfic here 😉 The Shire generally strikes me as awesome for domestic fantasy fanfic anyway, but just imagine the adventures of a merchant from Gondor, Dale or even Bree as they try to make their fortune. I, err, may need to go read Kage Baker to get this out of my system. In the meantime, there’s this excellent essay examining trade through the Ages.

Musing about distances and profitability inevitably got me thinking about population density (see? Nightmare beta reader). I got all excited by The LOTR Project, only to discover that their populations are calculated from direct references in the texts. This results in some very skewed gender dynamics and correspondingly unlikely population explosions! Happily, Michael Martinez has discussed this at length, although sadly even he concludes that our guess is as good as anyone’s.

So it seems there are some world-building details that remain hazy for Middle-Earth. Thankfully, the world is so steeped in history and legend that it doesn’t bother me. It struck me on this reread just how well Tolkien knew his landscape – as the Fellowship travel through Eriador, every hill and valley is described, the ruins of the past poking up through the long grass. Much of the wonder of Middle-Earth for me is that sense of past and present, so I’ll leave you with what has always been my favourite image.

Behold, the great realm and city of the Dwarrowdelf

Yep, got something in my eye. Damn you, Howard Shore.

What’s your favourite bit of world-building (in Middle-Earth or any other?)